The importance of good sleep

The bliss of a good night’s sleep is priceless, yet the incidence of poor sleep (insomnia) is surprisingly common with a prevalence of around 42% in a general population.  The official definition of insomnia is difficulty falling and/or staying asleep.  Insomnia can be acute or chronic with chronic defined as occurring at least three nights a week, for three months or longer.

Sleep is essential, as it is the time when our bodies repair and regenerate.  One of the ways good sleep has all its benefits is by helping to lower stress hormones.  Inadequate deep sleep is linked to cardiovascular disease, degenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s, and also to increased severity of other ageing related illness.

Sleeping well also helps makes us smarter by improving cognition,  and emotional intelligence.

Sleep plays a role in our appetite and metabolism as we make more ghrelin (a hormone that increases appetite) and less leptin (that decreases appetite) when we are sleep deprived.  This means we tend to eat more and gain weight when good sleep is elusive.

Mood is also affected by poor quality or low quantity sleep, with good sleep being protective against depression.  Sleep is essential for optimal immune function and additionally in children and teens, for growth and development.

Just as insomnia can cause chronic disease, the reverse is also true, leading to an obvious vicious cycle of insomnia-chronic disease-insomnia.  Other causes of insomnia include (but are not limited to) uncomfortable beds, working night-shift, smoking and alcohol consumption, acute illnesses such as a ‘cold’, hormonal symptoms like menopausal flushes and lastly, stress.

Consequences of poor sleep include a financial burden to the economy estimated at around US$14 billion in the USA ,and around NZ$28 million in New Zealand.  These costs include the costs of prescription sleeping tablets.  However cost is not the only issue associated with these sleeping tablets.  There is also a significantly disturbing (NNT) of thirteen (i.e. for every thirteen patients treated, only one patient experiences improved sleep) as outlined by this study.  Complications are another issue with sleeping tablets being associated with a range of adverse effects including fatigue, impaired memory, ataxia, and falls.

Insomnia is also a known causal factor in accidental injury and death.  The incidence of insomnia related motor vehicle accidents alone, in an English study, is around 18%.

Solutions to insomnia are varied and it is worth trying more than one to find out which works best for you.  Often multiple solutions are needed.  If you still have difficulty after trying all these strategies, then see your healthcare practitioner to rule out treatable underlying causes of insomnia.

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